By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE WERE NO CAMERAS IN THE WORLD when America fought the first war on its soil, leaving mostly paintings of generals on horseback as a visual chronicle of the struggle. Now, in our latest war, also on our soil, there are millions of images created each day that strive to comprise a pictorial narrative of the unfolding tragedy. But more is not necessarily more: when the final battle has been fought, there will still be oceans of pictures missing from the saga, stories still left untold.
Perhaps it’s the nature of this very strange conflict, fought not against combatants with rifles but against Nature itself, which makes the pictures come so hard. Now, there is no visible demarcation between soldier and civilian: there is no designated field of combat, but thousands of little ones, many of the clashes and outcomes unseen, the casualties themselves vaporized in a fog of grief. And yet we struggle for any kind of visual measurement, some yardstick by which to measure our pain. The task may be beyond the power of any camera, at least any of which we’re aware.
I’ve been searching over the past few days through my own stacks for the above image, because, being of a revolutionary-era churchyard in Boston, the markers shown are literally those among the first to fall in that earliest of American wars. Given that the inscriptions on the tablets have been almost totally effaced by time and the elements, I consider these monuments symbolic of the strangely imposed information blackout we are all under regarding today’s citizen soldiers, many of whom vanish from our mist without formal lists, monuments, or in all too many cases, even a human goodbye. Like the data once stored on these blank slates, our true talIy of sorrow has been edited, censored by fate.
I feel that, in the year 2020, the meaning of Memorial Day has been unalterably changed for me, and for everyone in our dread new militia of millions. Many of the fallen were not drafted, nor did they volunteer, and yet they have been conscripted by destiny in a way that is fully consistent with those whom we normally honor on this day. Many may never be inscribed on a monument that our children may visit on a school field trip: their faces will, in many cases, escape our cameras. Many more will never be interred with a flourish of folded flags or the reassuring regimen of military pomp. Still, over the coming years, watching ourselves and other survivors remember the fallen may inspire us to create new kinds of images, scenes that we can scarecely dream of at present. As with those headstones from our first days of passage, we need to retain what symbols we can of what we have lost, seeking in time to fill in the rest, to develop the remainder of the picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FRIEND PAUL IS GONE, but I am holding a small part of him in my hand.
He passed late last year, adroitly avoiding the current Great Hibernation and all its horrors. By that time, he had survived a hardscrabble farmer’s childhood, the armed forces, half a dozen skin cancer scares (the farm years’ legacy), several strokes, a fused spine, and nearly eighty years of other scrapes which he largely dismissed with a wide smile and a cackle of a laugh. Before the turn of this year, however, he finally met an enemy that was too big to side-step, and now he is gone.
I hold a part of him in my hand because his wife and friends recalled, in the grief-driven process of finding homes for his various possessions, that I liked to make pictures. And so Paul’s camera gear….including lenses, brackets, cases, bigger cases to hold the smaller cases, cleaners, filters and flash units…became mine. I wasn’t chosen for the higher purpose of carrying on his legacy, or even understanding what he did with all this stuff. But it’s mine now. Much of it, I can’t practically use, but absent even one photograph of us together after a seven-year friendship, these gizmos are, now, rather sacred to me.
Annie Liebovitz and other shooters have made entire sub-careers photographing the personal belongings of people, from Emerson to Eleanor Roosevelt, that are themselves beyond the reach of portraits in the classic sense,. The gloves Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre. Annie Oakley’s performance costume. Paul’s cameras are like that to me. They can’t resurrect him the way a picture would, but they are talismans that summon a part of his spirit nonetheless.
Paul was an exhaustive student of rock ‘n’ roll, taking his youthful love for that music to a scholarly extreme. He didn’t just worship Buddy Holly:he traveled to Texas and became personal friends with Buddy’s widow, Maria Elena, a relationship that moved her to give him several ultra-rare studio recordings that you’ll never find in any textbook or collection anywhere. He could rattle off the personal histories of every one-hit-wonder in Top 40 history, and, coming from my own background in pop radio, I knew he was dead-bang perfect on every detail. He was also a natural gift for any kind of technical analysis, having worked as a TV repairman in the 1950’s and for IBM back in the punch-card era, and so I can easily imagine him applying that same degree of precision to the making of pictures. The quality and condition of the gear also argues for his orderly mind, as in the case of this pristine Canon A-1, the company’s first-ever SLR with fully automatic exposure, a camera from the 1970’s that is still influencing every element of camera design in the twenty-first century. I may never be able to make pictures with it. But it makes memories for me, even as a 35mm shrine sitting on a shelf.
I often read the user’s manual, and wonder if Paul needed to. After all, he seemed to live his life as if he had already figured out the instructions all by himself. In the end, his brain did all the best kind of work that people usually credit a camera with. That means that even if I never snap a frame with Paul’s camera, he’s already taught me, through his friendship, a vision that transcends gear.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME MEMORIES ARE BURIED SO DEEPLY in our mental archives that, like old snapshots, they deteriorate, browning along the edges, retrieved only in imprecise or incomplete detail. Ironically, these mainstays of our very personhood evolve over time from fact into folklore, rendering fundamental, formative events unreliable, suspect.
And if one’s personal memory of a time or place is less than “actual”, what about photographs of the places where those imperfect memories were forged? How can camera images of battlefields, home towns, even one’s childhood home record anything real beyond physical dimensions?
The park in the above picture first entered my consciousness in the late 1950’s, when my mother had medical appointments a block away and my father walked me around the perimeter of the pond to kill time while she lingered in the waiting room. I recall very specific things about tile mosaics of fish set in the concrete walkways around the water, and a few flashing impressions of a nearby cafe which no longer exists, but that’s pretty much the sum total of my memories of the place.
So, as a photographer in 2017, how do I even attempt to make a visual document of this locale? Any specifics of my own experiences here have been smeared and sandpapered until they only represent a part of a part of the real story. Shouldn’t I, in fact, sort of “free-associate” the scene, assuming that any fresh impressions are at least as trustworthy as my moth-eaten memories of it? Since I can’t reasonably capture a faded dream, isn’t the dream realm where I should draw for the missing pieces?
We only suppose that a camera, which at one level is a mere recording instrument, will act as an objective reporter on the current sites of our old adventures. But that’s the problem. It can only take measure of things as they are, not the unique mix of fact and fable that passes for experience in our imperfect minds. And so we frown at the results and mutter, “it’s not like it was…”
The reply to which should be: how would we know?